A fistful of tunes

The Big Gundown squints into the sun, throws its serape over its shoulder, and makes its play

Do you hear a lone trumpet blowing Deguello as you walk from the parking lot to work each morning? Do you still mourn Lee Van Cleef's descent back into television or wish you could peer icily out from under your flat-brimmed cowboy hat at your boss, slowly remove your cigar--a ropy cheroot as black as dried blood--and hiss "I don't think so" instead of "brilliant idea, I'll get right on it"? Does your significant other marvel--not altogether positively--at your ability to watch Once Upon a Time in the West over and over (and over) again?

Mike Haskins knows just how you feel. He's had the selfsame mixture of bad-ass cartoon heroism, nihilistic (potential) violence, and lush imagery running through his mind ever since he saw his first spaghetti western in the early '70s. Haskins was especially taken with the soundtracks to such Italian oaters as For a Few Dollars More and My Name is Nobody--perfervid, over-the-top scores that seemed to say that extremism in pursuit of vibe is never a crime. In 1974, when he and a bunch of school chums formed the early Dallas punk band the Nervebreakers, he found out that songs like the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly were as much fun to play as they were to listen to.

After the Nervebreakers, Haskins helped chart the beginnings of the local alt-country scene. Playing first with Tex Edwards, then with the Saddletramps in the early '80s, he relocated to North Carolina for a few years (it was he who hooked up North Carolina band the Backsliders with Donny Ray Ford and Ford's "Cowboy Boots"). While in North Carolina, he started his first version of the Big Gundown, called the Leopard Society. "Eventually, it dawned on me that perhaps the band's name should be closer to the kind of music we play," Haskins explains.

Returning to Dallas in the early '90s, he got a job as a factory rep for a couple of guitar companies and now sells acoustic and electric guitars. He changed the band's name around 1994, choosing the title of the 1967 movie directed by Sergio Sollima and scored by the ubiquitous Ennio Morricone.

"I just love the brooding, romantic, operatic minor-key music that those movies have," Haskins says. "The main appeal is the female vocals, which are very Italian, but the guitar sound--lots of twang, lots of reverb--fits in well with what I like, too--that whole Ventures-Bakersfield-Duane Eddy thing."

Together with his wife, Patti, who supplies the robust vocals, Jonny Jackson (bass), and Danny McCreary (guitars), the band gigged about town sporadically--"We're amazingly slack about getting bookings," Haskins admits a bit sheepishly--and quickly gained a reputation in spite of their fitful schedule.

The six-song, self-titled EP came out at the end of last year on Living Records and featured original drummer Kirk Lee, since replaced by Will Sahs, formerly of Adam's Farm. The song selection is a pretty good example of a Gundown live show--originals like "To the Last Drop of Blood" and "Any Gun Can Play" (did somebody say "dramatic"?), Italian movie numbers like "Uno Dopo L'altro" ("Maybe One, Maybe Nine," the number of people our steely-eyed protagonist will kill--did someone mention nihilistic violence?) and an appropriately lush cover of "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." Miss Patti sings with power and emotion enough to haunt the thoughts of the most dedicated lone rider, while Haskins' guitar gets a sound that's a thick slab of unabashedly dramatic, room-filling sound. He's honored his inspiration with a tone that can't help but sound cinematic, slathered in reverberating guitar twang that echoes forever, as if a guitar 40 feet long were being played at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Live, he applies the same philosophy to songs that cry out for that big sound, numbers like Link Wray's "Rumble," Duane Eddy's "Ramrod," and others.

"We're about half guitar instrumentals," Haskins--who is already working on a follow-up album--explains, "and half torchy female songs, over-the-top numbers like 'Where the Boys Are.'" Although such homages are quickly becoming trite--more and more bands cover the Pulp Fiction idiom with a passion and finesse that Street Beat recognizes from versions of "China Grove" and "Locomotive Breath" heard at long-dead junior and senior proms--the Big Gundown's palpable affection for their work and skill at executing it keeps them fresh and exciting. In these digital days of MIDI interfaces and pedalboards, Mike Haskins and the Big Gundown provide a welcome reminder of what an electric guitar can be about.

The Big Gundown's debut EP is available for $8 plus$1.33 postage from Living Records at 6212 Samuell Blvd. No. 513, Dallas, 75228.

...and the corner you rode in on
Everybody remembers those giddy days between pubescence and responsibility, when circles of friends were large and the questions weren't whether or not to waste time but how. One of the joys of that period was the evolution of a coded language--a sensibility, even--unique to the group, capable of carrying meaning yet utterly incomprehensible to outsiders. "Gyre the Innibinni!" you would say to the sales clerk, cracking up the people you were with and drawing blank stares from everybody else.

Most of us manage to make it through this trying time and on into cogent adulthood without being murdered, but this won't be the first instance of someone noting rock 'n' roll's ability to retard such development. Phish is a wildly popular band long on expository talent whose most devoted followers subscribe to a mythos so densely woven and impenetrable as to make a Masonic lodge seem as accessible as a hot-dog stand.

In the service of this culture, the band puts out a newsletter, Dsniac Schvice, a feature of which has been a column by Phish bassist Mike Gordon. Described by Gordon himself (or some press flack) as "absurdist send-ups, farcical rants, and surreal flights of fancy," his contributions to D. Schvice have now been collected in book form--Mike's Corner, available now from Little, Brown, and Company's Bullfinch Press for $14.95.

Remember that certain long-ago point in the night, when somebody would wipe a tear of laughter from his eye, cough, and say something like "Man, I bet if we just put a microphone, like, in the ceiling or something and recorded this--y'know, after we forgot the microphone was there and we were really rollin', man, I bet it could be on, like, Saturday Night Live, man!"--remember that?

Of course, that person was an idiot. A transcript of such a late-night session--laden with insider quips, code words, and humor that couldn't possibly outlast the situation--would be much like Mike's Corner: incomprehensible, annoying, justifiably embarrassing, and totally without purpose or merit. A sample, the opening lines from a bit titled "Deem Team:"

"Deem Team. May I help you?"
"Sure, we'd like a deem."
"You can't have one."
"Can too."
"Not."
"Too."

"Okay, we'll send you a deem." Chuck Razzle liked to deem, but he did not like telemarketing.

Lest someone accuse us of meanly choosing the very dumbest lines in the story merely to mess with Gordon, here are the final lines of the three-page "story":

"Deem Team"
"a deem."
"no."
"yes."
Frimoje
"okay"
deem.

I mean, what the hell is that about? It's hard to blame Gordon--you assume some publishing company mook came up to him and said, "Yo, Mikey, we'll give you X dollars to let us print the accumulated mass of whatever it is you write in Dsniac Schvice." And the bassist said, "sure," or possibly "deem."

It's just interesting (in the same way a car wreck is interesting) that Gordon, a member of an industry currently buckling under the weight of what many experts simply call (deem?) more crappy product than the market could ever bear, has chosen to introduce into the publishing business even more crappy product, thus ensuring consumers an even wider range of crap from which to choose.

Lest we sound like Grandpa when he runs out of medication for his rash, Street Beat would like to go on record as an enthusiastic fan of fanciful flights, whimsical ranting, tomfoolery, and all other forms of fun designed to distract us from the yawning abyss at our feet, but Gordon's not Edward Lear; he's not even Shonen Knife. He's not even trying. Perhaps there is a layer of Phish Phandom at which Mike's Corner is rollicking good fun, but all those people had bootleg copies of the book before it even came out. Are you sure Bullfinch Press isn't a misprint?

deem.
No.

Scene, heard
Congratulations to the winners of Poor David's B.W. Stevenson/Townes Van Zandt memorial songwriting contest: It was a tie again this year, with Austin's Diana Jones and our own Leslie Gail Brooks neck and neck. Victory must be sweet for Brooks, who has toiled long and hard in Local Band Hell. The winners go on to the Kerrville Folk Festival and will split a $150 purse...

Street Beat imagines Mike Gordon is probably a pretty nice guy. If you were at a cookout, there's probably no one better with whom to drink a few beers and sear a few wieners than ol' Mike. We value his input, assistance, tips, and feedback every bit as much as yours at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.

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